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A toxic minefield?

Sarah L. Stewart
Theo StroomerEveryday products such as Nalgene bottles, shoe polish and soap contain ingredients that may be harmful.
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The news hit me like an old friend’s betrayal. My Nalgene, the sparkling emerald water bottle that is my near-constant companion, contains Bisphenol A (or BPA), a hormone-like chemical that last month the National Institutes of Health said could possibly affect human development and reproduction.

Nalgene, say it isn’t so. It was one of my first purchases when I moved to the High Country, my effort to save water bottles, stay hydrated and ” I admit ” at least partially to fit in with the other bottle-toting mountain dwellers.

I’m the type who holds my breath when I pass someone smoking on the sidewalk, filters my tap water and buys organic whenever possible. So for now, my Nalgene sits on the kitchen counter as I debate its fate. But the BPA news got me thinking: What

other potentially harmful chemicals am I exposed to every day that I don’t even realize?

It’s a scary question to ask, but a necessary one, I thought. Who better to ask it of than Dr. Paul D. Blanc, who specializes in environmental medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and wrote “How Everyday Products Make People Sick.”

“Our governmental protective agencies have been letting us down in terms of what they allow on the market,” Blanc says, pointing the finger at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “Their record is pitiable.”

One group of offenders, he says, are spray water sealants used to protect fabrics. In the early ’90s, Colorado had an outbreak of severe lung injury related to the propellant used in shoe sprays, Blanc tells me ” approximately five hours after I had sprayed a new pair of suede sneakers.

I can’t say I was surprised: One whiff of the stuff, and you know it can’t be good for you. Upon closer inspection, my Kiwi Suede and Nubuck Protector bears a “danger” label (a step above “caution” and “warning,” according to labeling laws) that says it contains hydrocarbon propellant and petroleum distillates, among other frightening-sounding things. A search of various Web sites, including the National Institutes of Health’s Household Products Database, reveals that overexposure to substances in my shoe spray can cause everything from dizziness to respiratory arrest to coma to death.

But at least my shoes will be dry.

***

I started taking a closer look at the labels on all the products I use ” dish soap, hand soap, shampoo, carpet cleaner, toothpaste, lotion ” and found that I couldn’t pronounce the majority of ingredients in any of them. Of course, that’s no automatic indictment of their safety, but it does make avoiding potentially harmful ingredients more difficult for anyone without a chemistry degree. I had always assumed that if you could buy it in this country, it’s probably safe ” but Blanc’s comments had cast some doubt.

I began reading as much as I could about my household products, on Web sites like the Household Products Database and the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database. Even with the help of these sites and the medical studies they rely on, I found it difficult to decipher which chemicals I should really be concerned about.

Ingredients in my Herbal Essences shampoo, for example, affect the liver, eyes, central nervous system, reproductive system and kidneys of laboratory animals when ingested in high doses. But since I generally don’t eat my shampoo, should I care?

I was confused, but not alone.

I talked to Allan Finney, a patient at Riverwalk Natural Health Clinic in Edwards who worries about everything from the magnesium chloride he breathes while walking along roadsides in the winter to the chemicals that stain his golf ball green on his frequent trips to the course. Feeling sluggish, he recently did a month-long detoxification diet with Dr. Courtney Carag, a natural doctor at the clinic. Though Finney says he feels better, he still struggles to avoid harmful products and chemicals.

“The information out there is very, very confusing,” he says.

Carag agrees, adding that even some “organic” products can contain harmful ingredients.

“It’s hard to trust labels anymore,” she says.

***

I was getting more and more discouraged about all the things I’m spraying, lathering and slathering on my shoes, my dishes and myself. But Blanc had some equally disconcerting news about the stuff I’m sitting, typing and sleeping on.

A family of bromine-containing flame retardants found in everything from furniture to computer equipment concerns Blanc far more than the BPA news, he says. They are persistent in the environment and could be responsible for an epidemic of thyroid disease in cats, he says. One such retardant is among the 246 entries on the National Toxicology Program’s report on carcinogens.

Rebecca Hollister, who works for the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability and focuses on green building with her Avon interior design company, RoundHouse LLC, had similar news about just about everything else in my apartment, from carpet to paint. That fresh-painted, new-carpet smell is evidence of the volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, contained in just about anything that smells “new,” she says. Over the life of these products, they off-gas these VOCs into the air ” and into our bodies. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the worst VOCs can cause cancer and damage the kidneys, liver and central nervous system.

“If you can smell it, it’s already in your system, basically,” Hollister says.

It was becoming clear that even fairly conscious consumers like myself are probably getting exposed to far more potentially harmful chemicals than we’d like to imagine. Although it’s hard not to get pessimistic, we can still make informed purchases.

You can do some research of your own at the Web sites listed above, and Hollister encourages using the Eagle Valley Alliance as a resource to learn about all things environmental, including what’s in the products you use.

As for my Nalgene, the jury’s still out. I may invest in a new, BPA-free water bottle, which I’ve seen advertised more and more in the past month.

Otherwise, I think I’ll take my cue from Carag when it comes to the toxins in my life ” conscious avoidance, mixed with a bit of resignation.

“Most of us are exposed to a little bit here and there every day,” she says. “It’s just minimizing that as much as possible.”

Here are some Web sites to get you started.

Read the full BPA draft brief from the National Toxicology Program: http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/media/questions/sya-bpa.cfm

Find out what’s in products from dish soap to printer ink with the National Institutes of Health’s Household Products Database: http://hpd.nlm.nih.gov/products.htm

Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/index.php

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: http://www.safecosmetics.org

Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability: http://www.eaglevalleyalliance.org

The National Toxicology Program’s 11th Report on Carcinogens: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/index.cfm?objectid=32BA9724-F1F6-975E-7FCE50709CB4C932


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